Former members question Mich. church's mission

The Detroit News/January 13, 2019

By Francis X. Donnelly

Carson City — Of the 11 churches near this small town in central Michigan, one stands apart.

At the Church at Carson City, the men wear long beards and women favor long dresses. Members rarely socialize with local residents. They eat, pray and love in isolation.

Residents have learned little about the reclusive group since it began in the early 1970s.

That changed on Halloween when a former member spray-painted obscene words and symbols on the homes and cars of church leaders.

Responding to the arrest of Anna Morris, who police say admitted to the vandalism,former members unleashed a torrent of criticism of the group.

They described how former followers are shunned by their own families, children are punished physically and women are treated as subordinates. The congregation is discouraged from watching television, going on the internet or celebrating birthdays and holidays, ex-members said.

More disturbingly, they accused the church of covering up the sexual abuse of children by several members, including the late Lee Sherman, one of the group's founders.

They said it wasn’t a church but a cult, labeling the believers Shermanites. Group leaders have no seminary training.

“It’s all about power and control, and it’s sickening,” said Cheryl Ackley, 49, who left the church in 2013. “I felt like an empty shell with no mind of my own.”

Pastor Bill Hubler, 76, declined comment, hanging up the phone after a reporter identified himself.

Lawyer defends group

Bill Amadeo, a lawyer recently hired by the church, defended its handling of the sex abuse cases.

He said Hubler had learned about the alleged abuse by Sherman in 1974 after catching him coming out of the room of a 12-year-old girl. At the time, Sherman, 65, led a Bible study group that would later become the church.

But the girl’s parents decided not to press charges because they didn’t want her to go through a trial, Amadeo said.

When the study group formed the church in 1977, Sherman wasn’t named pastor because of the alleged abuse, the lawyer said. Sherman remained a member of the church until his death in 1994.

“This great man (Hubler) stopped the abuse even when the abuse was coming at the hands of somebody he greatly admired,” Amadeo said.

The group, which Amadeo says has 400 members, operates from a 10-acre lot outside of town. An L-shaped series of buildings holds the church, school and leaders’ homes.

Its congregation owns several dozen businesses in and outside Carson City that employ other church members, said former members. They include a quilt shop, dentist office, bed and breakfast, and used car lot.

The Halloween vandalism is the latest skirmish between the group and its former followers.

In 2014, four former members contacted the Montcalm County Sheriff’s Office to complain the church had failed to report cases of sexual abuse to the police.

One case involved member Tim Crater.

Crater, then 25, allegedly began fondling Jessica Moser, 7, in 1983 and continued for two years, Moser told The Detroit News. Under the guise of tickling her, Crater reached under Moser’s skirt while they sat on a sofa in Moser’s home, she said.

When Moser’s family told Hubler, he kicked Crater out of the church but didn’t report the incident to police, Moser said.

In 2003, Crater was charged in an unrelated case involving a 6-year-old girl in nearby Oakfield Township, according to court records.

He was convicted of two counts of criminal sexual conduct, sentenced to 51 months in prison and placed on the Michigan sex offender registry.

Crater, who now lives in Greenville, declined comment.

The 2004 incident may not have happened if the church had reported Crater to authorities, said Moser, who later left the church and now lives in Avon, Colorado.

“That’s on them,” she said. “If he had been punished, that would have prevented future victims.”

Through Amadeo, Hubler denied that Moser’s family had told him of the abuse. Hubler said Crater was kicked out of the church for not showing up for services and failing to follow the Bible’s teachings.

As for the other allegations made by the former members in 2014, the sheriff’s office said the alleged incidents had occurred long ago and none of the victims wanted to press charges.

Also, none of the complainants witnessed the alleged abuse but had learned about it secondhand, Detective Brian Snyder wrote in a police report.

Snyder closed the five-month investigation in 2014 without filing any charges, according to the report.

Graffiti prompts arrest

When church leaders awoke Nov. 1, they discovered their homes and the church scarred with graffiti.

With orange and purple spray paint, someone wrote “family killers,” “false shepherd” and “blind sheep,” according to a Michigan State Police report. The church entrance sign had “church” crossed out and replaced with “cult.” Sherman’s gravestone was defaced with “pedophile.”

More ominously, “boom” was written on a propane tank behind one leader’s home and “dead” scrawled on the garage window, the report said.

When a church official viewed footage from a security camera, he recognized the vandal as his sister, Anna Morris, a former member. She was accompanied by her 14-year-old nephew.

Confronted by police, Morris, 54, confessed but said the threats didn’t mean she planned to hurt anyone, according to the report. She wanted the church to know how wrong it was about its actions and teachings.

“I wanted them to think about how bad they hurt others,” she told police, according to the police report.

Morris declined comment for this story.

She is awaiting trial, charged with two counts of malicious destruction of a building.

In November, she joked on Facebook about all the attention the church was receiving after her action “with my purple crayon,” followed by a laugh emoji.

“The lid has come off and the truth is showing in their igloo of koolaid,” she wrote.

How religious group began

In the early 1970s, people from other parts of Michigan began coming to this rural enclave to hear Sherman discuss the Bible. The body shop owner had a long white beard and large girth that reminded some of Santa Claus.

Among the visitors was Hubler, a young car salesman from Muskegon. He told a TV reporter in November he had never met anyone who knew more about the Bible.

Hubler gave away his home and most of his possessions, moving here with his wife and two children. He began attending Bible study sessions with Sherman at a local resident’s home.

“Outside of the thing that happened with Lee (the alleged abuse), I’ve never ever regretted it,” he told Fox 17 in Grand Rapids.

Church disciples are often told the story of the group’s origins.

One day Sherman was working on his car and placed his Bible on the roof, according to the story, said former members. The wind blew the dog-eared, much-underlined book open to Isaiah 60:1.

“For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee,” read the verse.

Sherman took this to mean he should start a church in Carson City.

Church doctrine

The church demands strict obedience to its leaders and their interpretation of the Bible, whose writings are taken literally.

The leaders’ control extends into the personal lives of believers, who disclose intimate details of their lives, former members said. One woman was told she needed to lose weight to remain attractive to her husband.

Transgressions include driving too fast, visiting other churches, buying expensive furniture and wearing one’s skirt too tightly.

Followers are made to confess their sins before the church and getting on their hands and knees while the congregation prays over them, said former member Pete Michelsen, 34, of Phoenix, Arizona.

“All that stuck with me was to feel shame, fear and this damn condemnation,” he said.

Former members say the group is authoritarian, judgmental and intolerant.

They were taught to fear the outside world, which was described as a den of inequity, loneliness and death. They heard over and over that, if they left the church, they would no longer be protected by God.

The church told supporters they weren’t the ones in bondage, it was everyone else, including other churches, said former members. The flock at the Church at Carson City were the chosen people.

When Shelly Castro’s family left the church in 1999, the then-15-year-old was so scared of going to hell she contemplated jumping out of the speeding van.

“I know what it was like to grow up being brainwashed, believing that you don’t question them,” she said.

Preaching isolation

The church isolates itself from society by discouraging the congregation from spending time with nonmembers, or “worldly” people.

The group objected to one follower becoming a volunteer firefighter and another playing for a high school team, said former members.

During a meeting with church leaders several years ago, a member was chided for spending too much time at the deathbed of his father, who wasn’t a member.

“I didn’t pick my friends. They were picked for me,” said Moser.

Of all the people to be avoided, the most persona non grata are former members.

The church castigates former believers and threatens to expel anyone who has too much contact with them, former members said.

After leaving the church in 2007, Kristy Loomis said she received a secret phone call from her brother, who was still in the group.

Her brother asked if she was OK, saying the church claimed she was poor, on drugs and, being unable to care for her handicapped son, had given him up for adoption, said Loomis, 37, of Ithaca. None of those things was true.

“They defame the character of everyone who has left,” she said.

The shunning extends to relatives, leading to longtime splits in families.

When Amadeo posted photos of a recent church meeting on Facebook, it was the first time former member Liz Cummings had seen her mom and a sister since her dad’s funeral in 2012.

It was strange that this glimpse of her family was orchestrated by an attorney she didn’t know, Cummings said.

“I just wanted to reach them, wanted them to hear me. We’re not these horrible people. I’m not evil,” she said.

Stranger still were the conflicting emotions that swirled through Cummings, 37, as she listened to Hubler being interviewed by a TV reporter in November.

For a few minutes, she felt like she was 12 years old again, shivering in the church, which was always cold, she said.

The memory was oddly comforting, like being home again, she said. After she left the church in 2001, she had felt adrift for a long time.

But Cummings has found her moorings. She’s happily married with three kids and works as a skin care specialist. Her new home is far from Carson City, a gated community in New York.

After the cold comfort from watching the news report dissipated, Cummings felt only revulsion toward her former church.

“It was like an abusive marriage,” she said. “You don’t realize how bad it was until you get out.”

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